Cultivating Communities of Practice

By Tim Seavey and Catlin Tucker

A Community of Practice (CoP) is a branch within social learning theory that resides within the constructivism paradigm. A CoP is a social system and defined as a group of individuals who share a common concern, set of problems, or passion for a specific topic. The goal of individuals participating in a CoP is to deepen their learning in a process of collective learning (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002; Wenger 2010a, 2011b).


This learning theory branches off from the work of Dewey and Vygotsky who assert that we learn best through the interplay between our experiences, the artifacts we create, and our social interactions. For example, we use language as an artifact of understanding, but a language is deeply impacted by the context in which it is used and the act of communicating with others. These complex interactions form knowledge and aid learning. CoP highlights the role that communities play in the social experiences that create knowledge formation.

Communities of Practice

Not every community is a CoP in the same way that CoPs are not called that in all organizations. CoPs are everywhere; most people belong to a number of them. They are known by various names, such as learning networks, thematic groups (hobbies, school, home, etc.), or tech clubs (Wenger, 1998a, 2010b).

To be a CoP, the community must have the practice element. A practice is something that is produced over time by those who engage in it. In an inalienable sense, it is their production. (Wenger, E., 2010). This means the term community of practice implies the group is producing an outcome or striving for a goal. It should be noted that not all production (outcomes) are positive. CoPs can have a negative impact on society just as much as they can have a positive impact. However, for the purposes of education, the intent is positively building a foundation of knowledge that improves learning outcomes.

According to Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger, the philosophers who created the Communities of Practice theory, there are three dimensions to a CoP:

  • What it is about? What is the joint enterprise as understood by its members?
  • How does it function? What are the relationships of mutual engagement that bind members together?
  • What has it produced or created? What is the shared repository of communal resources (routines, norms, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles) that members have developed over time? (Wenger, E., 1998)

Participation in Communities of Practice

Just because a group of individuals share a passion or interest and come together to build knowledge does not mean that the community will be productive for its individuals or the community as a whole. This is is in part due to the many roles we play within a community, which vary dramatically. The term “community” is a pivotal concept when referring to social groups. Our participation may change depending on the group. We may be core members of some communities while occupying peripheral roles in other groups. Regardless of our role, learning is an intentional, explicit goal (Riel & Polin, 2001; Wegner, 1998). Therefore, our interactions with CoPs can be shallow or deep, depending on our engagement, self-efficacy, or role within the community. These roles and their effectiveness can greatly influence the overall effectiveness of the CoP.

One of the primary tasks of a CoP is to establish a common baseline through the collective knowledge of experts and the accumulation of experience over time by those who engage in it. CoPs function to standardize what is well understood within a particular domain so that people can focus their creative energy on more advanced or nuanced issues (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002; Wenger, 2011).

CoPs function as a repository of information and an idea incubator.Click To Tweet 

In today’s hyper-connected society, CoPs are easier than ever to form using digital platforms and tools. Technology makes it possible for people with a common passion, interest, or goal to work together (Reil, Polin, n.d.). With the ability for people to connect across time and space both synchronously and asynchronously, from various distances and social groups. CoPs are becoming more diverse and rich in their productive capabilities.

Build a Community of Practice With Your Peers

We should all be involved in a CoP for our development. The organization does not need to create a formal CoP for this collaboration to occur. In fact, if educators wait for their administrators to initiate a formal CoP, it might not happen. It can be more powerful when the faculty drives the creation of their own communities and employs simple strategies to bring people with shared interests and passions together. They can create forums to exchange information and ideas, begin book clubs, and host social gatherings to discuss and share strategies. For example, using the learning management systems (LMS) tools (repositories for information, forums, instructional content), educators can informally load “tidbits” of information for sharing, exploring, and improving upon.

Create Communities of Practice with Your Students

As educators, we often forget that our students are already involved in their own CoPs naturally. Watch them play video games or extracurricular activities. They form groups, share information, form knowledge and strategy about their practice. In the classroom, Students can benefit from early participation in a CoP. This collective approach to gathering, storing, and building collective knowledge can help students to feel less alone in their academic and non-academic endeavors. Participation in a CoP that is focused on building knowledge can be an engaging and stimulating in a different way than many students are used to learning. The skills of social negotiation, relationship building, and collaboration are invaluable. If students learn how to form or seek out CoP, they are more likely to become life-long learners.

Students do not even have to be in the same class or working on the same subject to benefit from participation in a CoP. For example, a virtual writing center, study groups and spaces, and more can all promote participation in a CoP.   

Remember that a successful CoP sustains itself over multiple generations of members and yet do so without becoming brittle. They grow their collective knowledge-in-use, or ‘practice,’ by incorporating variations that arise from the diversity of their dynamic membership and their collective interaction with the larger communities, e.g., political systems, institutions, in which their community exists and with which it interacts. (Riel, M., & Polin, L.,2001). We the people are the CoP.



Polin, L. G. (2010). Graduate professional education from a community of practice perspective: the role of social and technical networking. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 163-178). Springer, London.

Riel, M., & Polin, L. (2001). Communities as places where learning occurs. In Annual Meeting of American Educational Research Association, Seattle, WA.

Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (2004), Designing for virtual communities in the service of learning. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning as a social system. Systems thinker, 9(5), 2-3.

Wenger, E. (2010). Communities of practice and social learning systems: the career of a concept. In Social learning systems and communities of practice (pp. 179-198). Springer, London.

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business Press.


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